Expression . . .
In his book on the early American play, Androboros, Illinois Theatre Professor Peter Davis draws a direct line from that little known political satire to the 1735 press freedom trial of John Peter Zenger, arguing that those events led eventually to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Think of it: the bedrock of freedom in American discourse influenced by a theatrical polemic. Indeed, Dr. Davis makes the case that freedom of the press is a bulwark for the “extra-Constitutional corollary that today defends and defines all American art: freedom of expression.”
Twenty years ago, burgeoning computer interconnectivity was popularly referred to as the “information superhighway.” It was believed that new tools for gaining knowledge might speed us toward a newer, more enlightened form of democracy. Subsequent growth of the Internet, the World Wide Web, the blogosphere, and all manner of social media have, however, rendered that imagined superhighway as a cacophony of information, disinformation, self-promotion, argument, invective, and cat videos. How often is true insight shared? How many hoaxes are exposed every day? And how much public shaming is enough—or too much?
Over the past couple of years, the University of Illinois has found itself embroiled in controversy over what is appropriate expression in the digital public square. When the university failed to cancel classes during a winter storm in 2014, a top administrator was vilified online in racist and sexist messages posted by students. Always seeking a teachable moment, Illinois faculty and staff elected to engage with the university community on the nature of civil discourse in an attempt to shift focus away from ad hominem attacks and onto finding appropriate modes for expressing dissent.
Several months later, a newly hired faculty member was denied confirmation by the university based on vulgar communications in social media that one might despise as inappropriate (and some have) but appear related directly to the scholar’s established work on the genocide of indigenous cultures. To some, these messages crossed a purported line between civility and obscenity. To others, the professor’s public diatribes were an expression of academic freedom. There was dissatisfaction and outrage on all sides of the question.
At Illinois Theatre, we saw this debate as an opportunity to explore the notion of “free expression” and to consider its different meaning depending on one’s social, educational, political, or cultural perspective. It was not so long ago that a 2001 attack on American soil led to calls from authorities for speakers, comedians, and commentators to “watch what they say, watch what they do” lest patriotic or other offense be taken.
During the current season, we explore five plays informed by the theme “Free Expression: Censored.” Most of these plays—or their underlying influences—have been censored, banned, or burned by authorities as a result of some perceived transgression lodged in their texts (and contexts). Now, of course, two of them are classics of modern literature and a third is based on an American classic.
As the globe seems to turn a little faster and technological change presses us incessantly, we at Illinois Theatre invite you to take a few moments to “unplug,” “power down,” and consider how the transgressive ideas that live in and around these works may speak to us today.
Thank you for joining us at this performance. We hope that you will be stimulated, provoked, and entertained by what you experience here, and we hope to see you again very soon.
Jeffrey Eric Jenkins
Head, Department of Theatre | Producer, Illinois Theatre